Even though the Joseph Wilson affair has convulsed the capital for many weeks, much of what makes it important is still ignored. Part of the reason is the insider establishment's deep-seated unwillingness to face up to the Nixonian depths of this Administration's moral depravity. A President, Vice President and Cabinet willing to deceive an entire nation for the purpose of war are not going to think twice before destroying the career of a loyal CIA agent in an attempt to smear her husband. Nor is a group so radical that it casts the CIA as the enemy in its plans for world domination likely to worry about the body count of innocent victims on its revolutionary path to neoconservative nirvana. The media treat this case as an aberration. It's the rule.
But another part of the reason this case is so hard to explain in terms that account for why it has taken off is that it involves a shady aspect of the media/government nexus that everyone involved would prefer to leave unexamined. Reporters almost never focus on the sources of their information--even when the leak itself is the most significant part of the story.
The idea that "leaking is wrong" is something that politicians always say but only children believe. Was it wrong for Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers? Are whistleblowers evil? Didn't even John Kennedy tell New York Times and New Republic editors that in retrospect, he wished they had refused his request to keep plans for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion from their readers?
No less naïve is the notion that Presidents and their advisers abhor leaking. What they abhor are leaks they can't control. But they leak all the time as a matter of policy--and here is the key point--even in the most sensitive matters of national security and with the use of classified data. If this surprises you, then you haven't been paying attention. In his most recent book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward brags that he was given access to the deeply classified minutes of National Security Council meetings. He also noted, not long ago, that the President sat for lengthy interviews, often speaking candidly about classified information. This surprised even Woodward, who observed, "Certainly Richard Nixon would not have allowed reporters to question him like that. Bush's father wouldn't allow it. Clinton wouldn't allow it.'' But George W. Bush does it--breaking the law in the process--and nobody seems to care. Why? Because Woodward plays ball--he reports Bush & Co.'s actions in the same heroic, comic-book cadences they use themselves. Moreover, he doesn't bother weighing any competing claims or seeking to determine whether anything he is spoon-fed might actually be true.
The second great fiction of this story is the notion that Robert Novak is a "journalist." Nobody else published this story, because all six of the other reporters given the leak weighed the perceived motives of the leaker and the likely cost of publication to the country and to Plame and Wilson against the value of this hand-delivered scoop. The only person to take the bait was Novak--who published it in the Washington Post unedited, because its editorial page apparently sends his copy to the printer without reading it first. In publishing what one "senior administration official" describes as a leak "meant purely and simply for revenge," Novak even refused a request from the CIA not to reveal Plame's identity.
Novak may have acted unpatriotically but not inconsistently. He has never made any bones about the fact that he is an ideological warrior first and a journalist second, if at all. To offer one small but revealing example from a previous decade that appears to have new relevance today, let's go back to October 5, 1986, when Sandinista soldiers shot down a C-123K cargo plane ferrying weapons to the contras in southern Nicaragua. Of the four-man crew, the two American pilots were killed, but its cargo kicker, Eugene Hasenfus, also an American, survived and was captured. He revealed to the world that his entire effort had been controlled by the CIA and sanctioned by the US government, sending both into a massive panic.
The contras' man in the State Department, Elliott Abrams, took to the airwaves on the Evans & Novak program on CNN. Asked whether he could offer "categorical assurance" that Hasenfus was not connected with the government, Abrams smirked, "Absolutely, that would be illegal.... This was not in any sense a US government operation. None." This performance was a part of Abrams's plea-bargained conviction for withholding information from Congress by Iran/contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.
I interviewed Novak not long after this for a too-kind profile I was writing and asked how he felt about being a pawn in Abrams's deception. His answer: He "admired" Abrams for lying to him on national television because the lie was told in the service of fighting Communism. "He had a tough job and there were lots of people out to get him," Novak averred, expressing zero regrets about misinforming his viewers. "Truth" did not even appear to enter into his calculations. There was his side and there were the other guys, period. That the Post and CNN willingly lend space to the man, knowing what they do, is another of the ongoing scandals involving journalistic standards and conservative ideological domination of the elite media.
Finally, regarding the identity of the leakers--well, yes, Karl Rove is obviously a top suspect, given both his power and modus operandi. Ditto Dick Cheney's Rasputin, I. Lewis Libby. But what about Elliott Abrams? A convicted liar and longtime ally of Novak whiling away his time inside the National Security Council, he has played a much larger role in these war plans--and the battles that have accompanied them--than so far has been recognized by the media. Abrams has quite legalistically denied any role in "leaking classified information," according to White House press secretary Scott McClellan. But the last time Abrams pretended ignorance, he was lying. When caught, he found himself celebrated by Novak, pardoned by Bush's daddy and given a spanking new career by Bush himself. I think he knows the drill by now.